The Picadilly Coffee Incident by Caleb Weintraub
published in Volume 12, Issue 1 on November 12th, 2006I was having breakfast at Picaddilly's Diner and I swallowed something in my coffee. It was about the size of a pill, only less definite, and more organic. I would have vomited right then, but I'm too self-conscious to lose control in the middle of a public place. Later, when I was recalling the whole thing, I did vomit . alone.
At first it seemed reasonable that a crumb from my muffin may have fallen into my coffee, and that it was a crumb that I had swallowed, but the muffin was still tightly wrapped when it happened and when I opened it to inspect the condition of the pastry, it was moist and complete. No crumbs. So it could not have been a crumb that I'd swallowed. Crumbs cannot escape from a crumbless food, shoot through three sheets of wound wax paper and fall unnoticed through the fingertip-size hole in the plastic top of a styrofoam coffee cup without leaving any trace. And all that not to mention the fact that my coffee and muffin never really had crossed paths, seeing as each had been in a separate hand since my departure from the sales counter. Furthermore, it's highly unlikely that a crumb could retain its consistency in such hot liquid and be as large and as hard as the thing I swallowed.
Crumb ruled out.
But it could have been a bug. This possibility had me almost emptying my insides into the half opened paper paper bag I found lying abandoned on the table next to me with a partially-chewed remnant of donut or something left inside it all tangled and smothered in a mucusy napkin. Doubly disgusted, I still somehow managed to restrain myself. Such is the power of Vanity.
There was no doubt in my mind though. It had been a bug. A black Bug. Big Bug. Pregnant Bug. Slick and shiny, and squirmy too. Right then the slick, shiny, squirmy, big, black and pregnant thing was wriggling down my esophagus going deeper and deeper, getting lost inside me. And there wasn't anything I could do about it. Who knows where those things walk, what they eat, what kind of damage they can do? And now whatever had been on it and in it was inside me. I put down the Times with a nervous smack and crumpled it into a chaos of creases. I was getting antsy. Antsy. Oooh, What if it were an ant! A red ant. Aren't those things dangerous? I could already feel it nibbling at my insides. And there was this awful taste in my mouth. I wondered if it had secreted something in there. Then I realized what it was. What it had to be. It was a shitfly, not an ant or a bug, a shitfly. What could possibly be worse? shitflies are all over the place in this kind of weather, always landing in drinks and drowning in stuff; they fly into anything. Good Lord, why me? My stomach was turning more and more every the minute. And now with this new awareness that I had not just an insect inside me but one that brought along with it some cat shit, or dog shit, or horse shit or who knows what kind of shit? Maybe people shit! Homeless people's shit! Diseased homeless people's shit that I could contract rabies or hepatitis or scurvy from - I was on the verge of calling my doctor, an ambulance, God and the pentagon. It was getting bad. Very bad.
My throat was starting to itch and it felt like something was creeping up from inside, and not just going down. What can creep like that? Could the thing I swallowed have been a spider? Spiders are everywhere too. I can't stand spiders. People always tell you to watch out for them, to save them, that they are good little creatures because they eat mosquitoes and gnats and other pests but I don't trust them with their creepy crawly ways, how they sneak up on you and make no noise at all. At least a bee comes buzzing and mosquitoes whine. What's more, spiders have eight arms. I've seen the trouble two arms can wreak, a spider is just four times the criminal. The worst are those skeletal greyhounds-of-eight-legged-monster, the Daddy-long-legs . they may not be classified as spiders by genus but we call them spiders and that makes them spider enough for me . though I'll hate them whatever their name is. Those vile things are all over the place here, creeping around these parts like the dismembered claws of witches. I strained my eyes and looked at the long window by the entrance where I could see, even then, a whole colony of the vicious things swirling in frenzied silhouette against the toxic green of the sky outside. I squeezed my throat to arrest the one inside me, to kill it before it could go any further, tickle any more . before it could begin to spin its awful web and start a family. Too late. It was already spinning. Spinning at a frantic pace, racing in long stretches from one region of my insides to another with supernal speed and abandon. Everything was itching, stinging, panging. My lungs were being trapped in its web. It was awful. Indescribable. People were staring at me. I tried to look calm. But how could I? They had no idea what was happening to me, how in five more minutes, my vital organs would be completely mummified; already my lungs were so tightly bound by the spider's chords that I could hardly expand my ribs enough to get any oxygen at all. I was sipping at the air. I'd begun wheezing heavily. Wheezing and panicking. I knew I was panicking, and that it might make things worse, but who wouldn't panic with a mad spider locking up your insides in gooey twine and planning to take you over and turn you into a six foot hotel? I was on the verge of death. And there wasn't anything to do but wait for it to take me. I doubted the spider could be regurgitated but I tried grinding my throat just in case. It didn't work. In fact, it only made things worse, the grinding cut little ridges into my pharynx where the spider began immediately to lay hundreds of tiny tickling eggs that shook themselves deeper and deeper into the crevices until my whole body was full of them. The Heimlich was out of the question. The daddy long legs would just cling to my walls and not let go - and like I said, I wouldn't be willing to just throw up in the middle of Picaddily's Diner or any other place, even if it were an emergency, even if I were dying, even though the floor was already a mess and even though I hardly knew anyone there and the only ones who knew me at all only knew me by face. It would be too much to let myself go.
I dread embarrassing situations. I tried hard to regain composure but there was so much happening in me that I just couldn't. Come to think of it, there was so much happening that it was just too much. Too much for it to have just been a daddy long legs. Who's to say that in this town, where it's as undeveloped and woodsy as it is, where we build houses and strips of stores like this in forested areas, where we clear away a handful of trees and plunk down a garage and a dumpy diner disturbing the peace of a million species of creeping things, who's to say that the worst one of all, the dreaded Black Widow spider didn't take it upon herself to wreak vengeance on our kind by using me as an example. Of course it was that. A Black Widow in my coffee. My G-d, even I know those things are deadly. I watch those shows. It would be just like the stories I'd read about how a long time ago when the first American families settled in Santa Barbara, a half a dozen women were mauled to death by a pack of displaced wolves who discovered them picnicking and tanning where the wolves used to live.
I know how these spiders work. They make small punctures in their victims' bodies and suck out the liquid content. This one was draining my pancreas right then and surely had already begun on my kidneys seeing as my urge to pee had disappeared in a flash. An then there's there the venom. The bite itself is often painless and can go unnoticed. But the poison injected by a Black Widow's bite can cause abdominal pain similar to appendicitis and pain to all a person's muscles and the soles of his feet. Other symptoms include alternating salivation and dry-mouth, paralysis of the diaphragm, profuse sweating and swollen eyelids. All of which I had. I was as good as gone.
I could feel my body responding to its venom. My mouth was parched. My knees were knocking. My feet were asleep. My vision was blurring and I was itching inside and all over. My eyelids were like two dark curtains coming down against my will like the drapes of a hearse.
Then I remembered it was Halloween time. I had heard on the news about a psycho who was putting cyanide tablets in candy and drinks. And how there were all kinds of copycats out there . Sick punk bastards. And then I realized, that's what this feeling was. It was poison. Real honest to G-d poison. Not venom taking over my being, but cyanide. That would explain the flip-flopping of my heartbeat. One second it's a snail, the next it's a cheetah banging through my chest. That would also account for the cherry color of my skin and the burned rubber taste in my mouth. The feeling that convulsions are on the way. All symptoms distinct from the symptoms of a spider's poisonous bite and characteristic of Cyanide.
Would you believe it? Cyanide in my coffee? Of course it had been put in there by somebody. How else could anything have gotten under the cap. My eyes scanned the counter for the culprit. I found him right away. No doubt. All cocky and teenage, with dyed black hair and ghoulish eyes. A tattoo of some winged thing on his wrist. That was him alright.
And now I was heating up and sweating all over, but shivering at the same time, like one of those little dogs, you know the little shaky ones with giant bulging eyes and spastic tails like the needles on blood pressure monitors . dogs that are the combination of so many diluted canine strains that they're legs can barely hold their bodies and their various and mismatched parts are like the madly assembled organs of a doctored car, all wrong - a likeness of the thing desired but sick and sniveling and not running quite right - That's what I was like.
It was becoming a hideous death. I didn't even have the strength to go confront my aproned killer. Idiot. why me? I was rubbing my eyes and when I stopped, I saw he was looking at me. I suppose to see if the cyanide capsule was working yet. It was working alright. I knew it because I felt it, and he knew it because he could see it, and I knew he knew because I could see it in the smug grin on his face. He was so grossly pleased with himself, the prankster killer.
But maybe it wasn't just some Halloween prank after all. Maybe he was one of those devil worshipers. It could have been some kin of initiation rite. I might have been an offering to some dark deity who'd demanded the sacrifice of an unsuspecting suit, a successful businessman, a good Christian. He couldn't have been more wrong about me.
Well, there I was clutching my stomach, resting on my withering arms, dying on a cheap plastic red and white checkered table cloth surrounded by coke and ketchup and all kinds of consumer Americana, stupid and impersonal and staring dully up at me, watching me with disinterest, watching me without eyes, letting me die a lonely human death.
I started coughing. The poison was in my ears and there was an incessant ringing. Nobody seemed to care but I think I was drooling. My eyelids were fluttering and closing, and then they just shut and stayed closed like coffin lids. All around me, people went on with their conversations. I couldn't have cared less right then about the stock market or the Yankees or people suffering overseas. I wished I had gone somewhere else for coffee. I almost had, but I hadn't. Instead I came To Picadilly's where a punk-ass kid in a not-so-vintage t-shirt that probably cost more than my suit and tie and shoes altogether, would poison my coffee as a dare or stunt or a sacrifice to some demon in his peanut head. And all because he thought I was more privileged, because I was a good lawyer or doctor, stable and happily married, and devout, when really, that isn't me at all. Not that those would be reason enough to murder a person, but the fact that I'm so far from it, miserable and weak, an insurance salesman with no future, unstable, a touch off my rocker, divorced, hopelessly unsuccessful, and utterly godless. just made my whole demise all the more pathetic and unwarranted. I hated to leave this world without any glory at all; but I always knew it would end this way. I never had it good. Even when it was good, it wasn't very good. You know what I mean?
My guts were churning and my stomach was growling loud as a lawnmower. People could hear it. My eyes were open again. Customers were looking at me, gawking. Sneering. Standing in line and pointing. I was sweating the heaviest sweat ever sweated. It was coming down my cheeks in biblical proportions. My shirt was being stained underneath my polyester suit. They would see the sweat marks after it was all over, after I was dead and splayed out over the tabletop with medics and strangers hanging over my body like vultures over roadkill. I knew they would see my sweat marks and they'd be repelled. And I'd be mortified. Even in death I'd be degraded. Maybe, they would call up my ex-wife to have her come and sort stuff out, she'd show up and I'd be doubly mortified, Infinitely mortified. Murdered again. She'd arrive to give information and verify my identity and she would see me there dead and prostrate, mapped with sweat stains and she'd reel at the sight of me, cough and back away embarrassed to admit to the authorities that she had ever been intimate with a thing like me. And she would leave without crying. And if she did cry it would be because she was embarrassed for herself. She would hustle down the avenue to her high rise to bury it all, to cry into the mangy coat of her stupid dog Jasper, and thank her loveless god that she had gotten rid of me when she did and replaced me with the stinking mut.
I felt like I was being strangled. My hands went to loosen my tie. It had already been loosened. It was the poison doing its thing, and no loosening of anything would free me from its grip but it was dumb instinct that had me stripping. I tried to will the choking to be something else, to be delayed effects of the strenuous workout I'd had the week before in a gym at a hotel in Montreal . impossible .I clawed for the necklace I'd forgotten I was wearing. But there was no necklace. Just a naked throat. Naked and choked and throbbing. I got up, awkwardly I'm sure, my shirt half off my back, and stumbled as inconspicuously as I could possibly manage, off in the direction of the bathroom, though one hand held my stomach and the other massaged my throat, still - I don't think anyone noticed anything unusual, if they did they didn't follow me to investigate. In fact, the only eyes that followed me at all while I made my way to the restroom in a zig zagging shuffle were the beetle eyes of my killer at the counter who sent one final lip-lifting sneer my way before I stepped out of sight through the heavy doors of the bathroom - doors that seemed to have become heavier than I'd remembered. Obscenely heavy. A hundred pounds heavier than necessary. And I wondered if the doors hadn't been transformed just at that moment by some supernatural force that had altered the setting and turned the room into which I was heading into an altogether different kind of place, a place that might call for immense doors like those. A place I might not have wanted to enter with so much haste . had I had a choice. But by that point I was at the service of my body. I was out of control, driven by a devil I could not divine.
In the bathroom I could see what the poison had done to me. My eyes were rheumy and dull. And my veins, the ones in my arms and in my hands, they
were pulsating and huge and terrifying. Ready to explode. They were like giant blue worms trying to squeeze through the freckled, hairy garden of my skin. I could see them thumping wildly under my limbs crossing in every direction. Fattening. Like they were consuming things in there. Becoming serpents, dragons that would devour me from the inside out. The restroom walls went sailing and the tiles wobbled by like falling shapes on a video game screen. The green of the room went to red and then to purple, changing with every cough. It was a hacking cough I had. Even if I weren't in such a state I might not have been surprised that these coughs could change the colors of walls.
My stomach was being thrashed and torn apart. Things were misbehaving everywhere inside me. I dropped to my knees under the pressure and the pain. While I was on my knees I thought I might pray, but I couldn't. I couldn't remember a single prayer. By the time I'd made up my mind to invent one I could no longer talk. The poison had crippled my vocal chords. And the bug, the shitfly and the unrelenting army of foul spiders were all cramming my throat. The end was near. But the wait was unbearable.
And then I thought of a way to speed it up, I'd go out and finish the coffee. Rush death. Finish the poison in one big gulp that would end me like a cancelled phrase. And if nothing were left of whatever it was inside the coffee, then at least it would be a last meal. Even criminals get a last meal. I certainly deserved one.
So I ran from the bathroom in my stricken state and hurled myself into the chair at my little table, uncapped the coffee - that had grown cold - and gulped it down with haste. And then it happened again. Another pellet, another pill. This one a little smaller than the first but the same in consistency and form. And this one I caught between my tongue and the roof of my mouth, held it there until all the coffee went down, until there was no more risk of it slipping down too and then I spat it out triumphantly into my hand and planned to die with it there so that the police would find it and know what it was and what would have to be done. I held off the pain for one last moment and cast a last swaggering glance over in the direction of the counter and then looked down to see inside my cupped and trembling hand, a mostly diluted sugar cube.